The owners and managers of a Browne’s Addition apartment complex waged a systematic campaign to rid the building of 14 Russian families, according to a lawsuit filed by the U.S. attorney general.
The suit is the nation’s first federal housing discrimination complaint based on allegedly unfair treatment of Russians, said Joan Magagna, the top lawyer in the department’s Civil Rights Division.
It names Western and Colleene Williams, the Seattle owners of the Park Arms Apartments, their property management business and managers Tracy Clark and Doug Johnson.
“In our view, they have violated the fair housing act,” said Magagna, acting chief of the civil enforcement office.
Attempts to negotiate an out-of-court settlement failed. The attorney general now seeks at least $250,000 in federal court penalties.
The suit also requests an immediate injunction to stop discrimination and an unspecified punitive award.
Mike Parker, lawyer for the four defendants, said his clients deny the allegations.
“Both sides need to do some more fact-finding,” said Parker, an attorney with the Spokane firm Powell & Morris.
The four refuse to be interviewed, he said. In a previous interview in July, Western Williams denied discrimination and welcomed back the evicted Russians.
According to the suit, however, the defendants waged a successful campaign to force the Russians from the apartment building. At least 13 Russian families left within months of Williams buying the brownstone Park Arms at 2315 W. Second.
The tenants, interviewed by The Spokesman-Review last summer, described an atmosphere of fear and intimidation under the management team of Johnson and Clark.
When leaders in the tight-knit Spokane Russian community questioned the treatment, they were rebuffed.
Maria Khala, a Russian interpreter and Spokane Human Rights Commission board member, said Clark told her, “I want all the Russians to move out of my building.”
One woman found laundry thrown from the building’s dryer into the garbage. Another, Vladimir Perederiy, said Johnson crashed his 6-year-old girl’s May birthday party, angry and swearing.
Perederiy immediately received a 20-day eviction notice. When his family tried to find an apartment elsewhere, Johnson gave them a lousy reference.
The eviction notice was withdrawn after the Northwest Fair Housing Alliance questioned the practice. “It was a nightmare,” said Perederiy, who has since found a new home.
Four other Russians received 20-day eviction notices that did not list a reason for the dismissal. None of the eight other, non-Russian tenants in the building got such notices.
The building’s previous owner, Bob Bethel, recruited Russian immigrants to his building because they were such good tenants.
“After renting apartments for 30 years, you get a feel for who you want to rent to,” Bethel said in an interview last summer. “I’d rent to these people any day.”
All the Russian families were immigrants who escaped communist regimes under refugee status.
Jeffry Finer, an attorney representing four of the families, said they were confused by the treatment in their new country.
“This is their home. For a refugee, the sense of security and home is jeopardized by the refugee experience itself,” Finer said. “Then, to have the home invaded in this respect, it had a profound impact.”
He plans to file a second civil lawsuit on behalf of the families within the week.
A recent judgment in a similar suit in Florida, also brought by Magagna’s office, awarded the plaintiffs more than $1 million.
Magagna said her office has handled about 80 housing discrimination complaints over the past five years, but it has not seen a case based on Russian national origin.
It’s also the latest effort in a campaign to end housing discrimination in Eastern Washington by U.S. Attorney Jim Connelly.
Four cases have been filed in 18 months. One was resolved Monday, as the owners of a Yakima apartment complex agreed to pay $25,000 to settle a complaint of racial harassment against an African American woman and her children.